New York (OPride) –– Ethiopia’s Civil Service Minister, Junedin Saddo, embroiled in a public controversy after lambasting the police for failing to properly investigate his wife before her detention last month.
The police say the minister, who recently sent an angry letter to the media, acted inappropriately, interfering with an ongoing investigation and judicial process.
The row comes amid uncertain and secretive transition following the sudden disappearance of that country’s longest serving prime minister, Meles Zenawi.
Saddo’s wife, Habiba Mohammed, was nabbed on July 17 under suspicion of lending aid to Muslim activists protesting against state interference in religious affairs. Mohammed was detained upon exiting the Saudi embassy in the capital allegedly with a stash of money totaling about $100,000 in her car – along with Arabic literature and dirty dishes that the police believed were from a Sadaqa (alms) muslim protesters held at the local mosque.
Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting against a nationwide indoctrination and government’s meddling in the election of religious leaders, a charge the government denies. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Shiferaw Teklemariam, Minister of Federal Affairs and a point man on religious affairs, made no secret of the government’s desire to link the protesters to "external forces," a veiled reference to Saudi-financed Wahabism, to isolate them from the larger Muslim community. Mrs. Saddo's encounters with the embassy served as a perfect fit for the narrative to be easily passed up.
However, a recently released U.S. State Department Terrorism report contradicted the Ethiopian government’s official statements. As a response to “a sense that fundamentalist sentiment was growing among some parts of the Muslim population, in July the Ministry of Federal Affairs began a controversial nationwide training program for religious leaders to counter violent extremism,” the report said.
In a letter to the local newspaper, Ethio-Channel, dated Aug. 1, 2012, Saddo detailed his version of events. In a three-page document, the first official confirmation of the arrest, Saddo denied that his wife had any connection with what he called “extremists.” Saddo insisted that the police failed to exercise due diligence.
“Aside from saying we saw her leaving Saudi embassy several times, the police failed to investigate; where did she go next? What did she do with the money, who were her contacts, what does she do in Arsi?” Saddo wrote. According to Saddo, the police acted prematurely without finding answers to these basic questions. Furthermore, the police could have effortlessly gotten to the truth by merely inquiring about her from the police detail [Mrs. Saddo travels with police escort] or requesting the agents to investigate the situation as well-placed detectives, he said.
Yesterday, in an interview with Addis-based Sendeq newspaper, Federal Police commander, Abebe Zemikael, confirmed the arrest of the minister’s wife and said she is currently under investigation in connection with terrorist activities.
The police chief added Minister Saddo’s claim about his wife’s clean hands was in bad form. “Innocence can only be proven in court of law,” said Zemikael. “It was inappropriate to say my wife is not guilty while there is a pending police and prosecutor charge against her.”
Experts say Saddo was within his legal rights to set the record straight and also to air his views on the circumstances of his wife’s arrest. “She is innocent until proven guilty and he has a freedom of speech to express his opinion,” said an Ethiopian legal expert, who asked to remain anonymous. “Junedin is only expressing opinion and not interfering in judicial matters as a member of the executive branch.”
Explaining how the police got the story wrong, Saddo wrote, his wife’s relationship with the Saudi embassy has been ongoing for over a year and half. On May 13, 2009, three days before she passed away, Saddo’s mother, Tayiba Tolo, left a living will, asking him to build a mosque on a land she owned in their native rural village of Shemacha Bego in Lode Hexosa district, Arsi Zone. Saddo was the President of Oromia region before ascending to a ministerial position.
In Arsi Oromo culture, he explained, at the event of someone's death, be that a 100-year elderly or a year old baby, it is customary for the mourners to give money to offset the cost of burial – and mourning, which can go on for months at a time. Instead of spending the community’s offerings on feeding mourners, Saddo said, he set on meeting his mother's last living wishes in earnest only a month after his mother had passed. But the amount was barely enough to lay the foundation for the mosque. He then turned to “well-meaning” acquaintances, who offered technical support, free transportation of building materials, sand and a variety of items to fulfill his mother’s wishes.
Given his modest income, Saddo writes, those contributions were not enough to finish the mosque. The building stalled for about a year and the builders had to disperse. As the community’s pressure on him to complete the mosque grew, he claims, he approached the Saudi Ambassador asking for help, doing so in his capacity as a private citizen. The Ambassador agreed.
Subsequently, Saddo’s wife visited the embassy about four times, until her arrest, to collect the money authorized for release in installments.
Last month, when the mosque was finally completed, the Saddos went to the opening ceremony attended by the community, local officials and a representative from the embassy.
Towards the conclusion of the event, an ecstatic throng of local community members donated money to put finishing touches on the mosque. The enthusiasm for the project by local folks who had little to spare prompted the staffer to offer additional 50,000 birr and donate 500 Holy Qurans to be picked up any day. Mrs. Saddo was detained the next day after collecting the promised money and Quran.
Saddo categorically denied the report that his wife was acting as a messenger for the protesters and rejected the allegation that she carried propaganda materials and money from the embassy. “There is nothing that police found in the car that can be linked to extremism, there won’t be any,” Saddo concluded. “My wife is a decent women who, let alone dealing with extremists, does not have a good friend to speak of.” He went on to add, "Her primary preoccupation has been the care of our little children who are suffering gravely in their mother's absence."
Saddo said he had been outspoken as a government official and as a citizen against the rise of radicalism in Ethiopia, in the process earning the wrath of the protesters and becoming the target of reprisals along with his family. “And we are suspected of propping up these elements?” Saddo asked as if puzzled by the whole turn of events. “My wife and I believe, extremism, no matter where it comes from is undemocratic, anti-peace and doesn't believe in reason.”
Saddo also ruled out apologizing on his wife’s behalf. “There is no reason to seek apology,” he wrote. “I have never done anything that would undermine my government -- and these allegations run contrary to my beliefs.”
Others say, instead of exonerating the minister and winning his spouse's freedom, Saddo's rather candid personal letter to a private media might have put his future in jeopardy. An FM radio station run by a former VOA reporter, the Tigrean Mimi Sebhatu, has reporedly called for the minister's resignation.
“At the event Saddo continues to insist on not apologizing, the statement by the police chief hints at what consequences may lay ahead,” said one local journalist. “If the experience with the disgraced previous Prime Minister, Tamrat Layne, is any indication, no apology is likely to forestall the demise of Mr. Saddo, either.”
A senior government official, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, summed up the frustrations among what he called "his likes”:
Our bizarre predicament is the most humiliating…shunned by our people as sellouts, we are despised and later discarded like an emptied can by our Tigrean puppet masters when we are no longer of any use for them.
The fate of Mr. Saddo, it appears, is not different from the many non-Tigreans who served the TPLF-dominated ruling party at the highest levels only to fall in disgrace stung by a regime they so loyally served.
It is to be remembered that Hasan Ali, also a former nominal President of the Oromia regional state, had to flee the country after his wife was detained in like manner following the souring of relations with Sudan in the late 1990s.